Holden Caulfield. Jack Kerouac. Henry David Thoreau. These are the stations of Sean Penn’s holy trinity. The idea of losing one’s self in order to find one’s self is the actor’s unspoken credo, whether it’s his chameleon-like performances or his anti-celebrity persona, romantic notions of rebellion are in his blood.
Whatever your feelings about Penn, over the course of four films he has grown as a filmmaker, never shying away from challenging material. From the ponderous and overwrought Crossing Guard to the sublimely haunting The Pledge, the actor-director has made bold stylistic and thematic choices. His latest — an adaptation of John Krakauer’s debut novel Into the Wild — shows an evolution of style and craft while exhibiting the kind of exuberance that’s been missing from both his earlier films and recent character choices.
Part celebration of naive idealism and part cautionary tale, Into the Wild is gorgeous, astute and kinetic, presenting the great adventure of youth as an external quest for the internal. It’s also too long, too meandering and too eager to provide simple answers to complex questions.
Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a 24-year-old Emory University graduate who dropped out of society, lived as a free-spirited vagabond and ended up starving to death in the Alaska wilderness in the spring of 1992. Inspired by Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau, Chris rebels against capitalism, dubs himself Alexander Supertramp and disappears into the wild; becoming a roadside Jesus who touches the lives of those he meets but never sticks around long enough to reveal whether he’s running toward or away from something.
To some, Chris will come off as a likable but spoiled brat, eager to punish his dysfunctional parents and too cocky by half. To others, his retreat into the natural world will stir something primal, a profound dissatisfaction with modern living.
Penn’s empathy for his hero is unmistakable and heartfelt. There’s an innocence to Chris that’s hard to reject. He goes beyond the cynical grievances of hippies and hipsters and becomes a blessed fool of sorts; donating his life savings to Oxfam, brazenly kayaking down the Colorado River, patiently listening to the wounded complaints of people who want nothing more than to make him part of their family. But there’s a deep selfishness to the character as well. For all Chris’s saintliness, Penn suggests that he may have been unable or unwilling to appreciate love.
It’s a tricky juggling act, balancing the character’s hubris and charm, and for much of the film Penn pulls it off, presenting a fascinating and sad journey. And as you might expect, the performances are all terrific. Hirsch recalls the early work of Leonardo DiCaprio, effectively mixing arrogance with wide-eyed affability. Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook are simply wonderful as damaged parents drawn to make Chris their own and protect him from himself. Only William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden suffer as Chris’s thinly sketched real-life parents. The true standout, however, is newcomer Brian Dierker, who plays Keener’s aging hippie partner. A nonprofessional actor, Dierker’s performance is so effortlessly lived-in that whenever he’s onscreen he helps create something few films ever achieve: the sensation that the story is unfolding in real time.
But when Penn missteps, he missteps badly. Eddie Vedder’s contributions to the soundtrack are far too strident and the film relies on some poorly conceived devices to move things along. From pretentious chapter titles to distracting diary entries scribbled across the screen to Jena Malone’s florid narration (co-written by poet Sharon Olds, no less), Penn over-romanticizes his story, giving it more weight that it requires. Particularly eye-rolling are his melodramatic explanations for Chris’ conflict with his parents. It compromises Hirsch’s carefully constructed performance, undermining the audience’s ability to project its own idealism onto his paradoxical and fragmentary character.
Despite these postproduction shortcomings, Penn takes us on an emotional and psychological adventure, allowing us to engage the American landscape as Chris does. Turning the internal into the geographical, cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) captures the distinct grandeur of each location, creating a tactile environment.
In the end, Into the Wilds’ relentlessly internal quest hits hardest once Chris reaches Alaska. Alone, living in its savage and unforgiving beauty, nature begins to erode his psyche and the line between being free and being trapped is erased. Chris’ deathbed revelation — that happiness is useless if it isn’t shared — reveals a far deeper truth than any of Penn’s poetic narrative musings. With no expectation of sharing his life with any of the people he met on the road, it cost Chris nothing to reflect back their better selves. It’s only when we commit to someone else that life begins to get messy. But better to die in disordered company than tragic isolation.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].